Nicola Fitzsimons Tue 13 Oct 2020
Outdoor recreation plays a vital role in Northern Ireland, bringing benefits to society by contributing a wide range of areas including health and well-being, social inclusion, community cohesion, environmental protection, rural development, and economic development.
Outdoor Recreation NI carried out a survey between 4th and 11th May 2020 to understand how the population of Northern Ireland was engaging with the outdoors during COVID-19 lockdown period which was implemented on 23rd March.
The results found that nearly 47% of the population were spending more of their free time outside when in lockdown compared to the same time last year and 51% intending to increase this time further once lockdown restrictions eased. The findings highlight a clear link between enjoying outdoor spaces and good mental and physical health with 89% respondents reporting that the time they spent outdoors made them feel calm, relaxed, refreshed, and revitalised; 84% felt physically healthier/fitter; 79% felt closer to nature. These benefits were strongest amongst people who visited the outdoors most often during lockdown and people with quality trails and greenspaces close to home. These are just a handful of examples as to why greenspaces are so important in today’s world, especially in such uncertain times.
Whilst there has been a huge increase in the use of the outdoors reflected in the research findings, 44% of those surveyed reported having to walk on roads and roadside pavements due to a lack of off-road trails in their local area, posing a safety issue. The findings highlight the need for more local off-road trails in urban and rural areas to ensure the public can enjoy the outdoors safely and securely. There is a clear appetite for the public to get outdoors without having to travel from their own doorstep to do so.
The survey also reveals some challenges, reflecting that the benefits of being outdoors are not being enjoyed equally by all. The research shows that of those people who have been enjoying access to the outdoors every day (63%), participation is lowest in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland (41%). It is so important that these statistics are taken seriously so that work can be done to increase quality local off-road trails and to support and empower those in deprived areas to participate in outdoor activity such as walking.
When asked an open-ended question about respondents priorities to improve greenspaces in their local area, the most frequently provided answers related to the need for more dedicated walking and cycling routes, away from roads and traffic. Some of the comments included, “reduce traffic and increase cycling/walking space on routes to local green space” and “better town planning – make green space integral.” It is encouraging to see that there is not only desire for green spaces, but that they are easily accessible by foot or bike.
Commenting on the findings of the survey, Dawson Stelfox MBE, Chair of Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland commented;
Moving forward we in Outdoor Recreation NI will certainly focus on building support to address this issue. It is evidently clear that things will never be the same again, and we will work to ensure that our Ministers and Departments are well informed of the public need in order to ensure our outdoors are more accessible and encouraging for the public to access and enjoy safely.”